A good idea from ... Constable

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I'VE BEEN sad thinking about how much worse the weather will get before it improves. The last leaves will go, nights will start at three in the afternoon, and the earth will harden so that it'll be inconceivable that anything ever grew from it - that there were once flowers and kisses and picnics in the meadows.

Artistic representations of Britain have long confirmed the gloomy view of its climate. While the Impressionists celebrated springtime in France, artists working in these isles have mostly painted the fog, the gloom and the nights that begin at three. Think of Turner, Whistler or the engravings of Gustave Dore. Writers have been similarly fixated on the misery of the weather. Explaining why he was first driven to take opium, De Quincey wrote; "It was a Sunday afternoon, wet and cheerless; and a duller spectacle this earth of ours has not to show than a rainy London Sunday." "Our weather is very bad and slobbery," knew Swift. Then there's the famous beginning of Bleak House: "Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth ... Fog everywhere. Fog up the river ... fog down the river ... fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights ... Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards..."

But there is someone to whom we might turn in the depths of winter - John Constable (1776-1837). Flying in the face of received opinion, he insisted that Britain's weather was fascinating and beautiful at all times of year, and particularly in winter. The problem was our way of looking at it. Whereas most of us equate good weather with a clear sky and horrible weather with clouds, Constable attempted to show us that an overcast sky was a dramatic spectacle to behold; full of rapidly shifting gradations of light and different cloud shapes. Between 1821 and 1822, he turned out a unique set of vast canvases called "Cloud Studies". For the first time in Western art, a painter looked at the sky as more than just a backdrop to the land; it became a subject in itself.

Constable took his easel and paints out to Hampstead Heath, where he lived, and to the Devon coast, and painted the weather in a way that meteorologists still applaud for its accuracy and critics for its beauty. Never before had a painter lavished such attention on what goes on above our heads - the neglected phenomena we blithely refer to as "the weather" and for which we seem to have only two labels, good and bad. His work teaches us to open our eyes to the skies - to distinguish between watery light and dry light, between stratus and cirrus, cumulus and nimbus.

It's no good pretending the weather won't be cold and dark this winter, but through Constable, we may learn to see that it never has to be boring.